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Wobblies on the Waterfront

Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive-Era Philadelphia

Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Wobblies on the Waterfront
    Book Description:

    For almost a decade during the 1910s and 1920s, the Philadelphia waterfront was home to the most durable interracial, multiethnic union seen in the United States prior to the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) era. In a period when most unions, like many institutions, excluded blacks or segregated them, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was ideologically committed to racial equality. More than any other IWW affiliate, however, Local 8 worked to become a progressive, interracial union. For much of its time, the union majority was black, always with a cadre of black leaders, which included Ben Fletcher. Local 8 also claimed immigrants from Eastern Europe, as well as many Irish Americans, who had a notorious reputation for racism. _x000B__x000B_In Wobblies on the Waterfront, Peter Cole outlines the factors that were instrumental in Local 8's success, both ideological (the IWW's commitment to working-class solidarity) and pragmatic (racial divisions helped solidify employer dominance). He also shows how race was central not only to the rise but also to the decline of Local 8, as increasing racial tensions were manipulated by employers and federal agents bent on the union's destruction. _x000B_

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09085-1
    Subjects: Sociology, Political Science, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Abbreviations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. Introduction: In Search of Local 8
    (pp. 1-8)

    Jake had just gotten a job unloading rotting pineapples. Most of Jake’s coworkers were black, along with a few white men who were not regulars on the New York City docks. Although told to stay inside the pier’s gates for the entire shift, Jake went out for lunch anyway. As soon as he walked off the pier, a white man approached Jake and started talking. The white man belonged to the union that had struck the pier and wanted Jake to join his union. Jake declined.

    “Nope, I won’t scab, but I ain’t a joiner kind of a fellah,” said...

  6. 1 Philadelphia: “The Workshop of the World”
    (pp. 9-30)

    In 1842 African Americans marching to celebrate Jamaican Independence crossed into the heavily Irish Southwark section of Philadelphia. Irish Catholics attacked the black revelers but, not coincidentally, fighting quickly moved westward to the Schuylkill River docks, where native-born blacks and immigrant whites competed for jobs. By 1850 the black-dominated docks had been taken forcibly by the Irish, who controlled waterfront work for fifty years. Yet by the late nineteenth century African Americans had returned to the riverfront and East European immigrants also had carved themselves a niche. By 1900 Philadelphia had perhaps the most diverse longshore workforce in the nation,...

  7. 2 Wobblies Take the Docks
    (pp. 31-49)

    On May 14, 1913, the longshoremen of Philadelphia walked out and “re-entered the Labor Movement after an absence of 15 years,” according to the local African American leader, Ben Fletcher. The IWW quickly gained control of this unaffiliated group—despite competition from a rival union and an awful reputation in mainstream culture—and, as reported by thePublic Ledger,“virtually tied up” the port. Fletcher noted that Local 8’s victorious strike involved more than four thousand deep-sea longshoremen, grain trimmers, sugar-refinery workers, and coal heavers, from “Polish, Jewish, Negro and English speaking” backgrounds. Part of an international wave of labor...

  8. 3 There Is Power in a Union
    (pp. 50-73)

    On Saturday, May 16, 1914, the members of Local 8 “decided to celebrate their first anniversary and to make this a L-e-g-a-l holiday under our jurisdiction.” Close to twenty-five hundred deep-sea longshoremen, virtually the entire workforce, struck, paraded, and picnicked to commemorate their union’s birth. Notably, the men “marched as they worked. . . . There was no race question here, true to the tradition of the I.W.W.” The years following their entry into the IWW were ones of tremendous activity, as the men tried expanding the power that grew from their shared work experience and union. First, this chapter...

  9. 4 War on the Waterfront
    (pp. 74-92)

    The year 1917 was one of profound changes. The United States officially entered the war in Europe in April. Three months later, on September 5, 1917, Local 8’s headquarters at 121 Catherine Street and the MTW offices near City Hall were stormed by federal agents of the U.S. Department of Justice. The six most important Wobblies were arrested, and all of the union’s records confiscated. The raids in Philadelphia were part of a well-coordinated federal plan to destroy the entire IWW, perceived as a threat to the Allied war effort. Two months after the raids the Bolsheviks overthrew the new,...

  10. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  11. 5 Onward One Big Union?
    (pp. 93-110)

    Although they experienced wartime repression, Philadelphia’s longshoremen approached the postwar era with guarded optimism. The raids and their leaders’ imprisonments notwithstanding, their union continued to shape labor relations on the Delaware riverfront for years after the war in the face of powerful and increasingly coordinated employergovernment attacks. Crucially, Local 8 still maintained job control, so anyone who wanted to work on the docks had to stick with the union. The continuing strength of Local 8 after World War I challenges the established historiography of the IWW that, for all intents and purposes, ignores the postwar era. While undeniable that many...

  12. 6 Riding the Wave of Postwar Militancy: The 1920 Strike
    (pp. 111-127)

    The strike launched on May 26, 1920, was the largest the port of Philadelphia ever had seen, with close to nine thousand workers out at its peak. When the longshoremen put down their cargo hooks, more than 150 ships immediately were idled in the Delaware River, and another 100 soon were affected. This conflagration belonged to an enormous wave of postwar labor conflict, in which truly mammoth strikes occurred in many industries and were met by well-coordinated, powerful employer counteroffensives. In contrast to many others, Local 8’s strike was not defensive in nature, though as with most of the others...

  13. 7 The Philadelphia Controversy
    (pp. 128-147)

    In August 1920 the IWW suspended Local 8 for loading ammunition on a vessel allegedly destined for the enemies of the Russian Revolution. The IWW’s national weeklySolidarityclaimed that the union “would rather face death and dismemberment than stand the disgrace of having its members render any assistance in keeping its workers enslaved to the Moloch of capitalism.” Thus, the largest and most durable IWW branch, as well as its only local with a significant black membership, was punished. Shortly after settling this matter, Local 8 was suspended again, this time for charging new members unconstitutionally high initiation fees....

  14. 8 Quakertown Blues: The Lockout of 1922
    (pp. 148-166)

    In 1980 James Moocke, a longtime Philadelphia longshoreman like his father before him, described his father’s recollection of Local 8’s last major clash with employers: “Of course back then it was like a war between labor and management. . . . It was a long strike. There was killings [sic]. Cops on horseback with billy clubs.” Moocke referred to the ferocious lockout of October–November 1922, which resulted in Local 8 collapsing. From 1913 to 1922, despite numerous hurdles, the union forced employers to hire IWW members almost exclusively on deep-sea piers. By the fall of 1922 much had changed....

  15. Conclusion: Toward Radical Egalitarianism
    (pp. 167-176)

    In the aftermath of the lockout Philadelphia’s deep-sea longshoremen were cast adrift. The IWW no longer commanded the loyalty of the men, nor did it have the power to force employers to relinquish any of its perquisites. A number of Wobbly leaders, including Polly Baker, were blacklisted. Some longshoremen, mostly white and led by Jack Walsh, stuck with the IWW, periodically trying to reassert their dominance with little success. The ILA sought to fill this void but found that employers had little use for it, once the ILA had helped destroy the IWW. A third, independent union formed but made...

  16. NOTES
    (pp. 177-198)
    (pp. 199-222)
  18. INDEX
    (pp. 223-228)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 229-234)